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How David Byrne and ‘Contemporary Color’ Turned Color Guards Into Rock Stars

Former Talking Head and filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross on transforming color-guard-plus-hipster-musicians shows into a peerless documentary

David Byrne 'Contemporary Color'

David Byrne and 'Contemporary Color' filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross on turning those color-guard concerts into a one-of-a-kind rock documentary.

Catalina Kulczar

In April 2015, documentarian brothers Turner and Bill Ross went to Dayton, Ohio, with David Byrne to witness the Color Guard World Championships, an annual competition that finds costumed teams blending interpretive dance with an acrobatic use of flags, sabers and rifles. Byrne had been fascinated by the event – equal parts balletic art and rigorous sport – ever since a team asked to license one of his instrumentals and sent him a DVD of their performance. But for the Rosses, who grew up 30 minutes from Dayton, the event might as well have been on Jupiter.

“It’s like the Super Bowl,” Bill says. “But we had no idea it was there. We got taken in, though, by how invested these people were. They don’t give a shit that nobody else is paying attention to it. This is their world, and this is where they get to express themselves like this. It’s a world unto itself.”

When the brothers would begin to go home each day, Byrne would stay, dog-eared notebook in hand, watching and analyzing each team. The former Talking Head had one big question, though: “What if it had cooler music?” he recalls. So he enlisted a roster of indie and pop musicians such as Nelly Furtado, Dev Hynes, St. Vincent and Tune-Yards to compose original music for various color guard teams, who would bring their routines to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre for a 2015 event dubbed “Contemporary Color.” “When David Byrne asks you to do something, it’s hard for you to say no,” says Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus. “Who doesn’t want to see how David Byrne’s brain works?”

Now, Byrne and the Ross brothers bring the film version of these shows to theatres. Ostensibly a concert movie, Contemporary Color augments the 10 teams’ mesmerizing routines with humanistic portraits of its participants – everyone from the member whose father died weeks earlier to the dads from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania who build sets for their daughters. “Had it been just a straight-up concert [film], I don’t know if we would have much enthusiasm for it,” Turner admits, with one of the film’s main goals, as Bill puts it, to “focus more on empathy than celebrity.”

Like their past films Western, a documentary on cowboys and sheriffs in tiny border towns, and 45365, about everyday life in their Ohio hometown of 21,000 people, the duo imbue the film with a sense of community, with each team filled with history, gossip and camaraderie that mirrors the primarily small towns that house the teams. “Having seen some of these guys’ work, I totally got the idea – this is a community,” Byrne tells Rolling Stone. “It’s temporary, but it’s very close-knit, and I thought the big difference for [Contemporary Color] was a rather large kind of spectacle that has to be captured as well as the community.”

For the film, the directors mirror the routines’ delicate balance between bombastic theatricality and spectacle – an overexcited announcer breathlessly narrates the action between troupes – and the militaristic precision and rote practice that come from hundreds of hours of doing the same moves repeatedly. “We wanted to make it like The Muppet Show meets Wrestlemania meets late 1970s basketball,” Bill says. “We thought they’d turn it down.”

Byrne was immediately on board.

A longtime Manhattan resident, the elder art-rock statesman is quick to point out the dichotomy between color guard’s massive popularity in some areas of the country versus its complete absence in others. “Of course, here in New York, we don’t know anything about it,” he laughs. “Here’s this kind of vernacular creativity, it’s very vibrant and sometimes gets pretty far out there with their ideas. And I thought, it needs to be given the respect it deserves. The culture arbiters tend to allocate culture to stuff that’s made in the big cities. I said, ‘No, no. All this stuff going on out there that people are making and creating stuff for themselves, everybody just loves it.'”

There’s a newfound urgency in the film’s release, however; one that its creators couldn’t have foreseen while filming. While the first show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center happened on the day the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage – a celebration of the “other” not lost upon many color guard teams – the film’s release comes as the freaks and geeks, the outcasts and the misfits, are increasingly under attack. Contemporary Color is a correction of sorts; a wide platform for the marginalized that, to quote Lucius’ Jess Wolfe in the film, “were never the prom queens.”

“It was incredibly empowering because those kids are aware of that narrative of the world, but within their world they are the stars of that,” Turner Ross says. “It doesn’t matter what society thinks of them, what caste they are a part of, what hierarchy they are in school or out in the world. When they’re on the floor, they are masters of their own domain and it’s a space in which they can be performative and athletic like that, but also emotive. They’re allowed to go through this sort of emotional catharsis together.”

“There was an energy in the air of it being okay to just kind of be,” Furtado says via phone. “[David] said it drew in the outsiders and I could connect with that because I didn’t always fit in. He was essentially creating community and this feeling of inclusivity. We live in a time now where we need a celebration of ‘the other’ at all times.”

Byrne agrees. “I think all that is more relevant than ever,” he says. “A lot of the kids in the teams are not the ones who made the football team, but it wasn’t until we actually started seeing the shows and I realized, ‘Oh my god, this is about diversity and acceptance. Empowering these kids. It’s about diversity of gender and race and body types. Everybody’s accepted here and they’re all stars in the world.'”


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